Eternal Generation: An Introduction
Basic Biblical Trinitarianism teaches that God is one being with one divine essence but three eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each of the three persons shares fully in the divine essence so that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God but there are not three gods. Similarly, there is a distinction in the persons, the Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son is neither the Father nor the Spirit, and the Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son.
Where this gets more complicated is when we begin to think about how God the Father is able to have a Son who is eternal? First, the Son must be eternal if he is truly God. This is both logically true and more importantly Biblically true. The Son was already existing “in the beginning” as John 1:1 states. The Son is the first and the last (Rev. 1:17, 2:8) and God blessed forever (Rom. 9:5) just like the Father. Equally, logically if the Son shares in the full glory of the Godhead (per. Jn. 1:1-3, 14, 18, etc.) then he must fully share in the divine attributes including eternality. There was never a time, or a point prior to time, when the Son did not exist.
Yet, a hallmark of sonship, in the creaturely realm, is that sons are generated. Sons come from their mother and father. We, of course, know more about this biological process than an ancient theologian. The basic point remains, when a father has a son, he has an offspring generated or ‘begotten’ from himself. The father passes something along to his son, specifically his DNA. In the ancient world, the concept of ‘sonship’ was more than merely biological. The son was an image of his father. As D.A. Carson puts it “your father determined your identity, your training, your vocation” (Jesus the Son of God, 20). There was a much deeper social connection, a good son reflected, represented, and carried on the attributes, identity, and status of the Father. To be a son was to be like the father. This is why in the Bible the phrase “son of” is often a descriptor regardless of biology or heredity. The doctrine of eternal generation helps us define the Sonship of God the Son.
Eternal generation of the Son means that from all eternity past, God the Father has begotten God the Son so that both are eternal, and equal in power, glory, and majesty but they also co-exist in a self-differentiated relationship. The Nicea-Constantinople Creed states that the only Son of God is “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father.” The Father is God and Light. The Son is God and Light but as God from God and Light from Light—eternally begotten. Typically, eternal generation understands that the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son in this eternal relationship and ordering (taxis), although some have suggested that eternal generation should be limited to the personhood of the Father and Son.
One Biblical passage that help us understand the doctrine of eternal generation is John 5:26.
John 5:26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.
First, we notice that the Father has “life in himself.” He is self-existent and therefore dependent upon no one and nothing to sustain him. Second, the Father gives to the Son this unique attribute of the godhead to have life in himself. Third, the Son has life in himself. Points two and three almost seem contradictory: does the Son have life in himself? Yes. But how can that be if he is given this attribute or quality to have life in himself? Notice John does not say “The Son has life from the Father.” No! The Son has always existed. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The Son does not come into being by a work of the Father. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the Son and Father that has existed for all eternity. The Father has always given to the Son, as to the ordering of the persons and divine essence, this “life in himself” quality. So, the Son is both eternally God and dependent upon nothing outside the godhead for existence and in a relationship where the Father is unbegotten and the Son is eternally begotten as to the order of the persons of the godhead. Further, we notice there is a difference between the Father and the Son in that the Father gives to Son this “life in himself” quality but it is not a reciprocal relationship, i.e. the Son does not give to the Father the “life in himself.” To make an analogy to human beings: the role and order of generation of father and son cannot be switched even when they share the same DNA—and DNA is passed between them. John’s gospel would seem to affirm what later Classical Trinitarianism defines: the Father is unbegotten while the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. [For a more detailed exegesis of John 5:26 see D.A. Carson “John 5:26: Crux Interpretum”].
For another Biblical text illuminating our path, we read in Hebrews 1:3a “He [the Son] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power…” The Son radiates out the glory of God. This is not as a passive reflection but as one who actively shares in the glory of the God. Just as the Father has divine glory, the Son has divine glory. But the Son, as Son, is also the exact impress of the nature of the Father. The Son upholds the universe with the power and majesty of the Godhead. Yet, he is an imprint of the Father—so that to see the Son is to see the Father (Jn. 14:9). But the Father is not the imprint of the Father’s nature.
Finally, in 1 John 5:18 “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” The believer in Jesus is one who has been born from God—referring to the impartation of spiritual life at the new birth (1 John 5:1). We have become God’s children (1 John 5:2) through an imparting of eternal life. Who protects us? Jesus, the Son of God. He is identified here as “he who was born of God.” This does not mean there was a point when Jesus did not exist nor is this referring to Jesus’ incarnation. Rather it refers to the eternal sonship of the Son of God. Jesus is eternally begotten of the Father.
Eternal generation of the Son safeguards the Fatherhood of the Father and Sonship of the Son within the godhead while we maintain the unity. It also safeguards the full deity and eternality of the Son. Eternal generation of the Son says that the Father is eternally Father to the eternal Son. That the Father/Son relationship has existed from all time. There is an eternal oneness to their being and an eternal self-differentiation (Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 20).
Eternal generation is not only a Biblical doctrine but it is a doctrine of the orthodox Christian faith. It is one that is to be believed and confessed. The doctrine of eternal generation is not useless undue speculation but a careful articulation of Biblical truth that protects us from grave errors of denying the deity of the Son on the one hand and on the other hand seeing the Father and Son as mere interchangeable entities in the godhead.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
D.A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012.
D.A. Carson “John 5:26: Crux Interpretum for Eternal Generation” in Retrieving Eternal Generation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2017: 79-97.
Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2012.